Friday, 13 March 2009

The Worker's Beer


essage
"Now a drop of good beer is good for a man
Who's thirsty and tired and hot,
And I sometimes has a drop for myself
From a very special lot;
But a fat and healthy working class
Is the thing that I most fear,
So I reaches my hand for the water tap,
And I waters the workers' beer."

Paul's Beer Blog raised a point about class, intellectualising beer and the future of pubs. I was going to reply there, but hey, I've a blog to fill too, so I won't. I'll expand on it here.

There are still plenty of people that want to drink in pubs and it is likely (with a few regrettable exceptions) that the better pubs will survive. I am no sociologist - or should that be economist - but if like me you have been a pub man for over 30 years, you will have noticed great changes in pub going habits. It isn't all price, but that certainly has something to do with it. When the pubs were filled with working people, not that long ago, the differential between beer at home and beer in the pub wasn't so glaring that when you were strapped it kept you out of the boozer. Then if you could squeeze the money together for a couple of cans, you could probably convert that to a couple of pints down the pub with a quick hand down the back of the sofa. There are wider reasons why the working class have deserted pubs and it would be interesting to actually ask them, but lets just accept that price is one of them.

The suggestion by Paul is that we need to intellectualise beer more, to attract the middle classes much as wine has been turned from the drink of the peasant, to the drink of the toff. It isn't that peculiar an idea, but it does have a kind of elitist element that I don't care for. I too agree that pubs have a bright future, but it ought to be a future for all. Condemning the workers to drink their crappy tinned supermarket beer at home and smoking themselves to death, while us middle class types raise pinkies and glasses of delicious craft beer in our pubs seems a step too far to me, but clearly there is a demographic curve that suggests that may be to some extent at least, where we are heading.

This brings us to the smoking ban. The idea that those who don't smoke are the future of pubs is given more credence by Government statistics (2007 figures) that tell us that 26% of the so called "working class" smoke, as opposed to only 15% of those who aren't. Clearly if you are looking to fill pubs, you need to target those more likely to come to them and that would certainly include the vast majority of those that don't want smoke in pubs and exclude those that object to puffing away on the pavement. Statistically you are likely to attract more non working class, as they in addition to not smoking as much, will have more disposable income.

There seems to me to be an awkward and inescapable trend here. Those pubs at the bottom end that fall out of the market were likely to be the haunt of the working class smoker. Those surviving will mainly offer the middle classes a better environment, more decent food and better (hopefully) but more expensive beer. Of course there will be exceptions, but the social exclusion already felt by many, is likely to extend more and more to pub going.

In this scenario at least and I recognise it need not be so, the pub, that great British leveller, may be heading upmarket and beyond the means of many, like it or not.

22 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

It's also the case that real ale is increasingly becoming a middle-class drink. Yes, there are still plenty of working-class locals around here with a healthy cask trade, but if you're in a pub somewhere else in the country and see a group of obviously working-class customers come in, odds are they'll order lager.

jesusjohn said...

Very good post.

Perhaps part of the problem is this question of intellectualisation. I have two issues here:

1) I am no sociologist either, but it seems clear to me that the UK in general has a nasty anti-elitist/anti-intellectual reverse snobbery. I mean, what is intrinsically *intellectual* about discussing the ingredients and flavour of a beverage? Were one to indulge in a quest for the meaning of beer, or wax lyrical about the Proutian cathartic epiphany engendered through a chance encounter with a pint of London Pride that could - conceivably - be described as 'intellectualising' beer.

I don't think this is a *bad* thing at all (I'm a history grad, FFS!).

But being excited by flavour, provenence, ingredients - all this is dubbed middle-class, poncey, elitist, intellectual. Not so in France, Spain, Italy, et al., where concern for ingredients is neither a class nor wealth monopoly.

2) The other problem (I admit it's related) is that we equate the '(over)intellectualisation of beer' (which, as I've said may be as profound as a discussion of hop varieties - hardly gonna get you into Oxbridge, is it?) with class. Can a working class person not intellectualise? Are no middle class types capable of mindless abandon?

Perhaps we are locked, with beer as much as anything else in Britain, into our peculiar and unfortunate perception of class.

But that does not mean that, with beer as much as anything else, we cannot aspire to a society that is unafraid of appearing erudite, with a broad range of people who are.

jesusjohn said...

God - I mean 'Proustian', not 'Proutian'. Hardly proving to be much of an intellectual myself, am I?

Suppose I want to add that my basic premise on pubs is this: any pub that becomes (for want of a better term) a middle class enclave in my view ceases to be a pub at all.

A pub is a place where all are welcome. If not, it's a bar with atomised people never engaging with one another.

ZakAvery said...

Talking about beer is as "intellectual" as talking about cars or sausages. It's the process that people object to, rather than the topic. Somewhere, as I type, there will be someone somewhere carping on about the exquisite smokiness of their white mountain new shoot sun dried tea, but that doesn't affect my enjoyment of my tea.

There will always be good beer and good pubs, just as there will always be crap beer and crap pubs. The function of the pub has changed as society has changed. Work has changed, and so too has how we fill our waking hours outside of work.

One might not like that fact, or one might not care, but do you know what? Things change. Accept it and move on.

Woolpack Dave said...

Is the middle class not the new working class?

There are a lot more educated people in the country now that you need a degree to get a job these days.

NAM said...

I'm not sure you can take the smoking figures in isolation. I would hazard a guess that someone who smokes is more likely to drink than a non-smoker, although I don't know where to look to prove or disprove this guess. I don't know many people who smoke but don't drink; I know plenty of non-smokers who don't drink. So, perhaps the 26% of working-class smokers make (made?) up 40% or 50% of the pub-going public?

Dave said...

Ummm.... I like most of your response Tandleman and I agree totally with jesusjohn. But I have to say that Paul’s post appears to be less a defence of intellectualising and more a defence of plain old snobbery. Something that I tend to find is all too apparent in the real ale blogosphere.

Curmudgeon said...

"So, perhaps the 26% of working-class smokers make (made?) up 40% or 50% of the pub-going public?"

An A C Nielsen report on pubs actually put the proportion of pub customers before the ban who were smokers at 50.6%, just over half.

Tandleman said...

Makes my point even more so then.

Paul Garrard said...

Only just caught up with the comments on my blog and this posting. Pubs will survive I feel more positive than most about this. Pubs are going to change. They must.The middle class will be the catalyst like it or not.

Mark said...

I've been trying to get my head around an intelligent and inoffensive way of writing about class divide. I'm not there yet but I think it links in to education. Educated people (degrees and beyond), I think, are more likely to drink proper beer and appreciate different tastes and flavours and foods and drinks. The 'working class' are stuck hegemonically in a world of lager, afraid to try something new because it isn't part of their make-up (re: eastenders).

Good post, very interesting. Ultimately, the good pubs will survive because they are good and serve decent beer and probably food. the bad pubs close and, let's be honest, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Southport drinker said...

You know what I'm going to write so I won't bother,, except to say it ends with beer soaked revolution. New labour have always been scared of pubs, with good reason.

Bailey said...

This inspired me to post something over at ours. Interesting issue class, and I say that as a chap with a bag of chips on his shoulder about it.

ZakAvery said...

Mark, that's a thorny issue, and one that draws on the American model whereby class is defined by income.

If "proper" beer (whatever that's meant to mean) relied on the patronage of those educated to degree level and beyond (and let's assume every single one of them, man and woman, embraced it rather than drinking wine (don't get me started on that one)), it would still be a niche product. Are you telling me that your master's degree cohort all drank "proper" beer?

Mark said...

Zak, perhaps I wasn't clear, it's a difficult area. A degree doesn't immediately place you as more likely to enjoy ale, etc. but I think the whole process of getting an education intrinsically makes a person more open to trying new things which will include foods, other cultures, activities and drinks (beers and wine and whisky, etc).

The hegemony in society keeps a class divide and the 'lower' bunch stick to what they know. An example: I was in Thornbridge Brewery's pub last week and a regular came in, sat in his usual spot, open the paper which was there waiting for him (red top) and drank a pint of carlsberg. He goes to this pub everyday but only drinks carlsberg. They have 5 excellent handpumps and moravka on. He doesn't want to change.

I am over-generalising but I do think there is a huge link to education (ok, so it doesn't have to be to full degree level and beyond) and drinking/eating artisanal products compared to mass-market stuff.

Curmudgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curmudgeon said...

Oh, the irony - you have to be middle class to enjoy "artisanal" products.

Dave said...

Recently, Miss Malcolm Gluck, she of the fermented grape juice, made a sweeping statement about beer being shit and beer drinkers being bad lovers, bad husbands and generally oiks. The real ale blogs, as expected, went ballistic and accused Miss Gluck of being a poncey, intellectual snob and a few other things.

Now tell me.... is this debate beginning to sound just a tad familiar? Be careful men, you are in danger of becoming clucking Glucks....

ZakAvery said...

I disagree Mark. When I did my degree, I was amazed at how unquestioning and desperate my cohort were. They wanted to get a good degree so they could get a good job - KPMG, PriceWaterhouse, that sort of thing. No-one was their for an education - it was the first step in a journey towards conformity and homogeneity. They weren't interested in trying anything new.

And I'm not having a pop at you - you're open to trying new things because you are an inquisitive and intelligent person, which has driven you towards getting a Masters degree. But you shouldn't assume that everyone with a Masters (or Bachelors, or whatever) has the same inquisitive nature as you.

jesusjohn said...

Zak said: 'When I did my degree, I was amazed at how unquestioning and desperate my cohort were. They wanted to get a good degree so they could get a good job - KPMG, PriceWaterhouse, that sort of thing. No-one was their for an education - it was the first step in a journey towards conformity and homogeneity.'

God - ain't that the truth! I thought (and hoped) university would be sex, drugs, marxism, senseless protest and a lot of intellectualising of the seemingly meaningless. Lectures and what-not would feature, of course.

But I was shocked to see people treat uni as a training ground for the daily grind. Appalling.

And I have to agree most undergrads think less about what they're drinking than how much.

On the other hand, that recent Pete Brown report into real ale drinking did discover a link between the (sigh) 'educated' young and cask ale quaffing (though if I remember correctly, this waned as the ages increased).

The lefty in me wants to say this is further evidence of the degree to which inequality can be measured in many more ways than simply hard cash. More than that - this inequality of life choices is becoming entrenched. It's sad.

Tyson said...

Jesusjohn
"God - ain't that the truth! I thought (and hoped) university would be sex, drugs, marxism, senseless protest and a lot of intellectualising of the seemingly meaningless. Lectures and what-not would feature, of course.

But I was shocked to see people treat uni as a training ground for the daily grind. Appalling."

Oh dear, you obviously went to the wrong uni!

jesusjohn said...

Ain't that the truth ;0)